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On August 2, 2003, Colin Doyle left for a prolonged stay in a sustainable community in Venezuela (see original story). On December 24, 2003 he wrote in with an update on his progress. Below is a final update he sent in that describes his adventures through approximately September, 2004:
Update 2 From Ishmael Reader Living in
Sustainable Community in Venezuela
December 24, 2003
Greetings all! This is the third and final piece about my living in the
Orinoco Delta, trying to semi-escape civilization.
I was in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela from January/February until July
of 2004. From August until December of last year I was there also. So 7 or
8 months total in the caņos (in the delta) with the Warao Indian family I
know. Tirso and Surdelina Gómez are the leaders of the family. They are about
60. From Feb. until July I lived with them in the same house in Jubasujuru
where Kwaku (my American friend) and I were 3 years ago. From August until
Dec. I stayed in a nearby village with Julio, their son who is in his early
30s and is a schoolteacher.
In September I spent a lot of time and effort and travel trying to get a
visa that is valid for more than the 3 month tourist visa. I didn't get
one, and spent 4+ months on a tourist visa, but luckily upon exit in
December there was no problem with the passport control guy.
So when I arrived in January I finished getting the requisites and then
applied for a year-long visa. This was in Caracas, the capital. They said
come back in a month, so I went to the delta. I returned in March, and it
was ready - great. Back to the delta. From mid-March until early July I
was incomunicado in the caņos (river network of the delta); I didn't have a
reason to go to a city.
So what happened in the caņos? Pretty much like it was from August to
Dec. Me as a semi-family member, semi-outsider, working a little, studying,
laying in my hammock.
One day in March or April I was cutting down brush near the house with a
machete, clearing a place where Indio (Tirso & Surdelina's son; he lives in
the house with his wife and 4 little kids) will build a house. While
cutting I saw what looked like the head of a snake about a foot away from my
right rubber-booted foot. I stepped back, verified that it was a snake, and
yelled "juba" to the house ("snake" in Warao). Berto, a young guy living in
the house, bounded over and killed the snake by smacking a long stick down
on it. It was the kind of snake I thought it was, a mapanare. If a person
is bitten and doesn't get the anti-venom he or she dies in a few hours; we
were an hour paddling from a clinic. Close call - it was just a foot from
my foot. The family said that when mapanares see rubber boots they don't
attack, but if the person isn't wearing them they bite more often. I was
wearing the rubber boots I had bought a week or two before. So that was a
good $6 investment!
More dangerous - Florentino, a 5-year-old from part of the family, was
stung by a scorpion and came within an hour or two of dying, the doctor
In April my feelings about trying to live in the delta started to change.
I started to become less interested in things, for example methods of
fishing or traditional healing. And instead of trying to thrive, I STARTED
to feel like I just wanted to survive until my departure. So my longing for
full involvement became mixed with biding my time. Y'all in the U.S. asked
if I got bored in the delta - as of April I sometimes did.
One day in April or May I was cleaning the brush with a machete near
where Indio is slowly building a house, and a wasp stung me on the shoulder
(I didn't have a T-shirt on). This is common. I stepped back, didn`t see
any wasps flying around and didnīt spot a nest in the bushes. So I
continued, and all of a suddenly like 5 of them stung me on the shoulders
and face and back. I went fleeing, and didnīt think about the machete. It
fell from my opened hand and hit my knee as I started to run. I looked down
and saw blood and a little open flesh.
I sat on the stairs next to the water and examined it. The machete had
made a cut like an inch long, not shallow but not deep. It bled but didn't
hurt. No adult was in the house, and no canoe, though there are always
plenty of people in nearby houses. After maybe 20 minutes of debating what
to do and whether I needed to go to the clinic in Nabasanuka, I decided not
to. I used two band-aids to cover it and keep it closed. If I bent my leg
I feared it would open up again.
So I spent the next three days without bending my right leg. After that
I went without band-aids, and each day bent it more. After a week I was
more or less normal, and after two weeks normal and confident to do physical
work, swim heartily, etc. So I was a self-inflicted gimp. :) Now there's
a scar there.
During the healing, I didnīt soap up that knee when bathing, and as a
result a pimple showed up, got bigger, popped, and got infected and swollen.
I took advantage of a trip to Nabasanuka, and the presence of lots of
medics that came in a big ship and helicopter (!) to have it checked out and
That same day the diarrhea started. Three days of normal diarrhea; then
it started to have blood and mucus in it. I went to the clinic and got
medicine, which didnīt work. I went back and got other medicine that is
slow-acting, but it didnīt work either. The infected knee gradually got
better, but the diarrhea continued, and I started to lose weight and be
weak. Surdelina (the mother of the family) and her lovely little old mother
prepared three different traditional remedies for me, but they didnīt work.
I spent one morning worried about whether to go get more of the medicine,
try to get taken to bigger facilities elsewhere, or to request a wizidatu
(shaman) try and heal me. But that morning I didnīt go to the bathroom, and
happily paddled to Nabasanuka solo in the rain to get more medicine. Some
days later I was back to normal.
So I spent about 3 weeks total with diarrhea, most of the time with mucus
and blood. I got weaker, but got back to 100% again after a few weeks back
in the U.S. I DID lose weight - the only other time that I recall losing
weight was when I voluntarily lost 21 pounds before freshman year in high
school out of willpower and desire not to be chubby. I could see that my
legs were thinner, my upper arms thinner, and my stomach and pelvis too.
Now back in America of the limitless food I've gained the weight back to
where I was, and with some physical work I did return to the same level of
strength and endurance as before.
If I was not in the delta I would probably weigh more now, because I
would eat more. Iīm often hungry in the caņos (or just want to eat), but
donīt feel the right to press for more food. Thatīs the thing I thought
about most often when 'dreaming' of the U.S.: what Iīd eat and how much of
it, and, toward the end, what Iīd cook. I am now interested in creating
lots of usual and unusual foods in our kitchen. There are SOOOO many food
options and equipment to make it and recipe books. So many possibilities!
So thatīs my health update.
Around May Tirsoīs mother Margarita, who was (in my opinion) near death
when I was in the caņos three years ago, died. The body was brought to our
house, and todo el mundo came for a day or two. People in boats from lots
of places, dozens. Crying, wailing that I had read about and could now see.
That one night there were ballpark 60 people there, most of them up all
night, sitting and talking. Much of the family came, and there was lots of
crying. The next morning they buried the body in an above-ground grave at
the nearby Jubasujuru cemetery. It was a very interesting event for me.
What did I do every day? The same as before. Studied Spanish and Warao
some, wrote in my journal some, ocassionally visited people or was part of
an outing, and did small-scale work. Getting water for the kitchen and to
drink, sweeping, washing dishes, and bigger work if possible, such as
cutting down the grass around the house, and every few days splitting a lot
of wood. Every day I worried about not doing enough work, although some
days I wasnīt interested because of rain or whatever. In the caņos I am
always thinking about what they think of me, whether they think Iīm lazy or
donīt help enough, or what their opinion is. That may be a general fault of
mine - worrying too much about what other people think of me. And playing
little games of politics, for example working when everyone can see me
instead of when no one will.
My Warao skills didnīt improve much in the last few months. For example,
my fishing is at the same poor level it was when I came home in Dec./Jan.
Iīm not sure the family wanted my help - for example of the 6 canukos
(fields they cut out of the forest) where they grow and harvest ocumo, only
in my final week did I find out exactly where the third one is, after all
these months. One day I offered to go to one and clean it and get ocumo.
They said īthereīs no ocumo in that one (all too young)ī, but the next day
they went there and got ocumo. Maybe the quality of my work is too low. I
donīt know. They know I am availalbe, but almost never request anything.
Thereīs a general lack of communication between they and I, though itīs
not glaring. Part of it is language difference, but a large part (I think)
is their view (and more and more mine) that Iīm visiting for a time and then
leaving, so thereīs no need for me to be fully involved. For example, they
almost never told me I was doing anything wrong or criticized me, and I
donīt feel the right to criticize them. They also have all the power to say
"Leave" if they want to; I don't like power differences wherever they are.
In the last months I more and more took on the mindset of a visitor who
is part-family, as opposed to a kind of family member. I looked forward
much to returning to the U.S. - yes, I've been homesick. A lot of my
positive thoughts in the final two or three months were about U.S. things,
from food and places and cultural understanding to unimportant sports or
Mom will ask, with a scowl, if I wore out my welcome. I think I did a
little bit. For example, in the last two months, Aydelis, who is 8 and the
oldest of Indio & Marcela's 4 kids, turned into an enemy. Sometimes she was
normal with me, sometimes good and happy like before, but often very
complaintative. Sometimes she was right or partially right, for example to
say that I don`t know how to cut up fish. And sometimes she was totally
wrong, for example to look at what Iīm writing in my journal in English and
say itīs wrong. She would often jeer at me if I looked at her or ate. I
think she was voicing what others in the household didn't want to voice to
me. I think Marcela privately complained a lot that I didn't buy enough
food (rice, pasta, etc.). I consider my conduct fine, not buying too much
or too little food, willing to work, etc. And they rarely requested food or
money for food, and I donīt think I ever turned them down.
One thing I felt in the caņos was that I want to be in a place where I am
not a visitor but a bonafide member, in which I have more control. For
example control of what I eat and when, and the liberty to direct actions
instead of just going along with them. Thatīs something I looked forward to
in the U.S. - the right to complain about things and demand things. I guess
Iīve had too much time of tiptoeing around, trying not to rock the boat.
I have been a fly on the wall of a Warao household (and somewhat more
involved than that). I have seen lots of things happen, though sometimes
still donīt know what is happening immediately or what will happen. When
they are talking, I understand the minority of what they say if itīs all in
Warao, sometimes all of it if it is purely in Castellano, and somewhere in
between when they mix the two languages, which they do really often. So I
generally get the drift of what they are saying, and sometimes the fine
points too. There are a lot of people they talk about, etc. that I donīt
know, so that can put me out of the loop. Almost never do they directly
tell me something unless it involves me (rare) or I ask.
So do I know whatīs in the heads of Warao now? Somewhat. I often
understand short statements, even if theyīre made in the
anything-but-monotone, how-would-you-transcribe-that? Warao way of speaking
their language. Very often what they say is piddly stuff, like mumbling to
oneself "Whereīs the knife?" or "Blow your nose" to a kid. From talking
with individuals Iīve gotten an idea of what problems they think about. So
I have an IDEA what Warao think. But not the all-important worldview. And
there are few Warao who can think and speak in the Warao way and in the
creole (Venezuelan) way. Some can do it partially, for example Berto, the
muchacho (young man) who lives in the house. If I word questions a certain
way and keep the talk simple I can learn things from him, but never could it
be anything deep. And in true Warao style, if I ask his opinion about
something he almost always says "No sé" (I donīt know). Itīs hard getting
much out of Warao. It was the same way in Botswana.
So my thoughts about the U.S. while in the delta have been about the good
things more than the bad things. Iīve looked forward to spending a number
of months straight (at least) in the U.S., and working at Capassoīs (a
farmstand where I worked before), and playing Nintendo and wandering around
big bookstores in the evening and going apple-picking in the fall and
grilling pumpkin seeds. American stuff. :^)
Iīve never been totally comfortable with the family, and not able to
fully relax. Maybe because of the power difference or because Iīm a role
model or because of a lack of strong connections.
So what is the status now of my attempt to permanently live in the delta?
Basically finished. Iīve given up the idea, at least for now, of living
there forever. As I tell the people when they ask me if Iīm coming back, I
was thinking last year and early this year of living in the delta and
visiting the U.S., but now Iīm thinking the opposite: living in the U.S.
and visiting the delta. So if one said my attempt to live with the Warao
was a failure, I wouldnīt argue with that, but would say that it wasnīt a
complete failure and isnīt that simple. I WILL want to return and see the
family and bask in the sanity of caņos life and naturalness.
So why did it more or less not work out? There was no event or falling
out or moment of clarity or anything. Just months of days. Part of it is
the situation itself - a culture and language and such SO different from
U.S. - part of it is their fault; and a good amount is my fault, for example
not fully diving in, not being cheery, and having a grass-is-always-greener
attitude. Kwaku and my good friend Greg, in the rare times that Iīve
communicated with him in the last years, always says that he is facing his
demons (is that the expression?), and I always think that Iīm not really
facing mine (though not running from them). I can say that in the delta I
have faced some of my demons, about what kind of life I want, personal
shortcomings, etc. Not earthshattering, but more self-exploratory than
Now that Iīm out of the caņos environment, these issues and how it was
are harder to get to the front of my mind. Already fading my time in the
delta? - eesh.
Iīve been thinking about big philosophical questions. The big issues in
life, like fate vs. luck, what happens after one dies, the soul and spirit,
what is the best life to lead, thoughts vs. feelings. I feel a certain need
to address these central questions, and not just hitting around the edges
sometimes as I usually do. For that, I am going to apply to grad school for
philosophy and religion. I donīt know all the details, but Iīm interested.
I also like the idea because it is for a finite time, like two years.
Coming off of this, my first ever attempt to permanently live a certain way,
the limited time scale of school appeals to me, as it did for international
volunteer programs. And I more or less liked college, with the dorms and
classes and friends and events.
Iīve cracked the idea of working at Capassoīs (a farmstand sort of place
where I worked last year and now have started working again), enjoying U.S.
things, and people and places I have a long history with, and researching
grad school, then visiting people, working some more and applying to grad
school and enjoying Christmas cheer in December, then going somewhere in
January or February. This is a timetable that Iīve come up with in my head.
I may feel differently once in the U.S. longer.
Mate mikitane/Vamos a ver/Letīs see.
OK, more newsy stuff. About a week before I was to leave, Berto, the
muchacho in the house, robbed me of Bs. 20,000 from my bags (thatīs about
$10). I found out about it a few days later through the honesty of Ana
Teresa (a friend from all of Kwaku and my time in the delta). He used most
of it to get drunk. Berto had also acted so normal after he did it and
before I found out, and even denied it when I confronted him. After talking
to a few other people, who Iīm not sure would have come to me the way Ana
did, Berto admitted it. He was a semi-chum too, a person on the same level
And then when I arrived in Tucupita I noticed that I was missing a $20
bill. I had 24 U.S. dollars and then just 4. It almost certainly happened
in Jubasujuru in the last few days before I left. I donīt know if it was
Berto again (the money was in a different bag) or someone else. But it got
me pissed. Yeah, rob the white guy. Twice. And Warao are usually SO
respectful of outsiders' things, much more than Americans.
There have been a lot of anthropologists in the delta, and most of them,
I have come to see from talking to lots of Warao, leave and donīt come back
(with or without having made promises to return). They complain about this,
but how can one expect foreigners to return when you rob them?
I wrote an angry and factual letter to the people of Jubasujuru, and gave
it to Salvador, a member of the family who headed back to the caņos a few
days later. When I later showed the letter to Tirso, who was then in
Tucupita, he got angry at me and said that I canīt acuse the household, and
that if I act like this I canīt come back. Oi - unexpected flareup from
Tirso, without a drop of alcohol involved.
The timing of the first and second robberies made me happy I was leaving
then and not quickly coming back. Iīm glad I donīt have to deal with it
I was nervous about having enough money to get out of Ven., or even to
reach Caracas. But I managed to change travellerīs cheques (which is now
against the law) with a Syrian who runs a shoe store. I bought a net for
the family to help them fish, and notebooks and pencils for kids of Jub. who
donīt have any.
The family, and maybe others in the caņos, donīt want more foreigners
with them. Itīs because anthropologists have come and learned everything,
then not helped the community (1), spread the information at their
universities and in their countries (2), and not returned (3). There are
people calling for Tirso (from Caracas, I think) requesting to live with the
family in the caņos, I think, and he says no. So I asked why itīs OK for ME
to be with them. When I asked Indio in Jub. he said itīs because the people
accepted me, and from now on there will be no more - so it seems I got in
under the wire. When I asked Tirso he said itīs the last time, and I canīt
stay with them for a month or two like I have. I think heīs OK with short
visits, but doesnīt want anything longer. Oh. Well, then itīs good that I
donīt WANT anything longer - I might not have been able to get it. When I
thanked Tirso and Surdelina for everything, she said for her part I can come
back anytime, and she is grateful for my help cleaning the "yard", splitting
wood, etc. (I guess what I consider little work she considers significant).
So I think the reception from Surdelina. is better than from Tirso. So
Kwaku, if you play your cards wrong you might be asked not to return.
So this is the end, troops. Man returns from sustainable community. In
the end, it wasn't for me (though I haven't found what IS for me). But that
CERTAINLY doesn't mean a far simpler and more 'primitive' life isn't the
answer for others. Find your way, Ishmael thinkers. And stay true.
You may email Colin directly for more information.
Learn more about sustainable communities inspired by Ishmael and Daniel Quinn.